Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Book Update (1/13/15)

Cup of Nirvana subscribers:

I am now in the accelerated final phase of completing my book on postmortem survival, due February 16. I have just completed chapter 5 and will be rapidly completing the remaining five chapters in the next month.  Below I have posted the CONTENTS for the first five chapters.  If you’re interested in receiving chapter drafts, please let me know by email.

Michael Sudduth




Series Editors’ Preface



1   Introduction:  The Empirical Survival Debate                                   1

1.1   Psychical phenomena as ostensible evidence for survival

1.2   The classical empirical arguments for survival

1.3  Deficiencies in the existing literature

1.3.1.  Deficiencies in evidence assessment

1.3.2  Three important conceptual issues

1.3.2.  Deficiencies in the formulation of the survival hypothesis

1.4  Recalibrating the empirical survival debate

1.4.1    The auxiliary hypothesis requirement (AHR)

1.4.2    The problem of auxiliary hypotheses (PAH)

1.4.3    Resurrecting the prior probability and explanatory competitor challenges

1.5.  Concluding remarks


2   Exploring the Hypothesis of Personal Survival                                 39

2.1   Personal survival: core conceptual issues

        2.1.1   Personal identity: soul survival vs. embodied survival

        2.1.2   Psychological survival

        2.1.3   Religious and philosophical considerations

2.2   A strong personal survival hypothesis

        2.2.1   The strong psychological survival hypothesis

        2.2.2   The interactionist survival hypothesis

2.3   Conceptions of attenuated personal survival

        2.3.1   The relevance of attenuated personal survival

        2.3.2   Exploring attenuated forms of personal survival

2.4   Concluding remarks


3   Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experiences                                         74                                                                   

3.1   The empirical approach to survival

        3.1.1   Philosophical and religious grounds for belief in survival

        3.1.2   Characterizing the empirical approach to survival

        3.1.3   Empirical data that might confirm survival

3.2   Out-of-body experiences

       3.2.1   The relevance of OBEs to survival

       3.2.2   The Martha Johnson case

       3.2.3   Experiments designed to confirm veridical OBEs

3.3   Near-death experiences: general features

3.4   Some widely discussed NDE cases

       3.4.1   The “man with the dentures” case

       3.4.2   The Pam Reynolds case

       3.4.3   NDEs involving apparitions of the deceased

3.5   Analytical description of the salient data

       3.5.1   Descriptions of the OBE data

       3.5.2   Descriptions of NDE-specific data


4   Mediumistic Communications                                                            113

4.1   Mediumship: types and general features

4.1.1   Basic types of mediumship

 4.1.2   An “ideal case” of mediumship

4.2   The mediumship of Mrs. Leonora Piper

        4.2.1   Background to Mrs. Leonora Piper

 4.2.2   The George Pellew sittings

 4.2.3   The Kakie Sutton sittings

4.3   Proxy sittings and the cross-correspondences

        4.3.1   Proxy sittings and their relevance

        4.3.2   Mrs. Gladys Osborne Leonard: the Bobbie Newlove case

        4.3.3   The cross-correspondences

4.4   Drop-in communicators

        4.4.1   A drop-in communicator in Iceland

        4.4.2   The verification of Runki’s claims

        4.4.3   Observations on the Runki drop-in

4.5   Rev. David Kennedy’s narrative

4.6   Analytical description of the salient data


5    Cases of the Reincarnation Type                                                    163                                        

5.1  Cases of the reincarnation type: general features

 5.1.1   Core evidential features of CORTs

 5.1.2   An ideal reincarnation case

5.2  The Bishen Chand case

        5.2.1   Background to the Bishen Chand case

        5.2.2   Bishen Chand’s claims

        5.2.3   Bishen Chand’s behavior and skills

5.3  Three recent cases

        5.3.1   The Kemal Atasoy case

        5.3.2   The Purnima Ekanayake case

        5.3.3   The Chatura Karunaratne case

5.4  CORTs and possession phenomena

       5.4.1    The Sumitra-Shiva case

       5.4.2    The Uttara-Sharada case

5.5  Analytical description of the salient data


Recent circumstances have brought to my remembrance a poem I wrote on May 14, 2011. It’s called Presence.  It was at the time the first “optimistic” poem I had written in over 15 years, and I wrote it during a powerfully transformative period. While I consciously wrote this piece about my former fiancee, in retrospect it’s clear that I was in fact unconsicously speaking of myself, specifically my inner feminine (anima) which had been externalized in the other through “projection.”  It’s not that none of what is expressed here was true about the outer feminine, but the truth there (as far as it reached) was only a manifestation of the deeper, abiding truth concerning the inner feminine.  I’m reminded here of the extent to which our conscious understanding of our present situation doesn’t quite penetrate the actual situation in its completeness, is only half the story at best.  As I’ve explored in Dancing Lovers, if we should become conscious of how what attracts us to the external other is a reflection of an aspect of ourselves awaiting recognition and development, we would withdraw our projections and see the other more clearly for the person he or she is.  Consequently, one’s love moves from fullness, not from perceived emptiness or incompleteness; love as a giver, not a taker.  So I now dedicate this poem to Sarah (my anima) and to the other, outer feminine who will be loved with deeper clarity and self understanding. Selah.


The mid-day sun is silent,

Enlarged with adoration.

My beloved and I walk,

Hand in hand,

Footprints in the sand.


Face to Face – heart to heart,

Her words enter me.

They become my thoughts,

My innermost desire.


When I look into her eyes

I see myself more clearly.

When I look within myself

I find her there.

So when she’s gone

She still remains.

Inescapable presence,

Filling me with joy.


She smiles and I am embraced

By her longing soul.

She laughs and I am filled

With an inner peace.


Through her eyes I see the

Beauty of the world.

Two souls – one eye,

Ever moving, ever still

In this precious moment

Of passing time.


Time moves forward, but

Nothing is in the past.

Even the seasons merge into one,

Winter to Spring,

Summer to Autumn,

Ever present.


She is the new born freedom

Found within my soul,

When time is forever

And I am now complete.


Her kiss is on the wind

That blows against my face.

Her breath is on my words

When they pass through these lips.


She is the inner self

Lying hidden in the night.

Moment of surrender

Passage into light.


She is the gentleness

Carried by the clouds.

The raindrops that fall

As tears upon my face.


She is the love of God

Lodged within my heart.

I surrender myself

Totally, completely.


And when I think I can

Enter her no more deeply,

She passes into me.

Inescapable presence,

I melt away,

And we are one.



Interview on Postmortem Survival (Part 3) – repost

In January 2013 Jime Sayaka interviewed me on the topic of postmortem survival for his now defunct blog Subversive Thinking.  In what turned out to be a lengthy interview (and preview of arguments in my forthcoming book), I outlined in considerable detail my critique of empirical arguments for survival, as well as explained why common survivalist defenses of these arguments lack cogency.  Below I repost my responses to questions #5 through #8. Question #5 concerns Chris Carter’s contention that the survival hypothesis is the most natural inference from the relevant data.  Question #6 concerns the strength of counter-explanations of the data in terms of psychic functioning among living persons. Question #7 concerns Chris Carter’s “silver bullet” objection to appeals to living-agent psi to explain the relevant data.  Question #8 addresses the alleged ad hoc nature of appeals to living-agent psi as a counter-explanation.  Note that in my responses I rely on symbolism used in confirmation theory to provide a formal account of various logical relations between evidence and hypotheses.


5 – Sayaka: Survivalists like Chris Carter and others suggest that survival of consciousness is the most natural, obvious and straightforward inference from the empirical data from mediumship, near-death experiences and reincarnation type cases. What do you think of this argument?
Sudduth: I’m not inclined to dispute the claim.  I think the claim is entirely compatible with my central thesis and the premises of my central argument.  Many theists say that the existence of God is the most natural, obvious, and straightforward inference from the fine-tuning of the universe.  And it is . . . to them.  I’m quite sure that for Carter and many other survivalists the survival inference is natural, obvious, and straightforward. However, as in the case of proposed theistic explanations of the existence and regularities of the universe, the obviousness of the inference lies in the (often unspoken and unconscious) adoption of a whole array of background assumptions. As a philosopher, I’m interested in identifying these assumptions and assessing their role in the inference to survival, and this is in the interest of ultimately evaluating the cogency and strength of survival arguments.  That the survival inference is natural, obvious, and straightforward to lots of people is a psychological truth that really isn’t relevant to the kind of question that is central in the empirical survival debate.
6 – Sayaka: You have argued that the super-PSI explanation of the data is adequate, if not most adequate, than the survival hypothesis. Can you explain briefly the super-PSI hypothesis and why is it so good as an alternative explanation for the data?
Sudduth: I don’t believe I’ve argued that the super-psi explanation is adequate, much less most adequate or good.  In fact, I’ve explicitly stated in a few publications now that we should dispense with talk of “super-psi” altogether and simply utilize the language of “living-agent psi,” with the further caveat that such a hypothesis may appear in more or less robust forms depending on the range of auxiliary hypotheses added to it.  My view is that appeals to robust living-agent psi hypotheses are no less adequate or no less plausible than the survival hypothesis, at least when these hypotheses are compared in their robust forms and we’re considering a maximal data set, not just narrow strands of data.  It’s quite another matter to say that either explanation is adequate, much less good.
I suppose I should say something here about strategies for critiquing arguments, as there seems to be confusion in some of the literature as to what it takes to defeat survival arguments.  If the argument for survival depends on the premise that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data, to defeat the argument I only need to show that the survivalist is not justified in asserting the premise. One way to accomplish this is to show that the premise is false, to show that survival is not the best explanation of the data.  Of course, to do this it’s not necessary to show that there is some rival hypothesis that better explains the data.  It would suffice to show that there is some rival hypothesis that is at least as good as the survival hypothesis in leading us to expect the data.  However, another way to show that the survivalist is not justified in claiming superior explanatory power on behalf of the survival hypothesis is simply to show that the survivalist is not justified in supposing that this premise is true, which is different from showing that the premise is false.  There are defeaters that constitute overriding reasons for supposing that a statement is false (rebutting defeaters) and there are defeaters that remove or otherwise neutralize reasons for supposing that a statement is true (undercutting defeaters).  This distinction is frequently lost sight of in the debate.
I maintain that empirical survivalists are not justified in claiming that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data.  More precisely stated, I maintain that empirical survivalists are not justified in claiming that the survival hypothesis leads us to expect data that are otherwise unlikely, or even less likely given the nearest robust competitors.  Now I do believe that there are reasons for supposing that there are nearby explanatory competitors that are at least as adequate at survival, or no less adequate if you will.  My position involves a parity thesis, and the argument is a parity argument. And this is one way to show that the survival hypothesis is not the best explanation of the data.  However, I also maintain, more modestly, that survivalists have not presented good enough reasons for supposing that the survival hypothesis is the superior explanation of the data.  If we’re comparing robust versions of the survival hypothesis and living-agent psi hypothesis, then I don’t think survivalists have effectively argued that the data are more to be expected given robust survival than given the nearest robust competitors, for example something like Stephen Braude’s motivated living-agent psi hypothesis.
But let me give a more technical elaboration here. Let C = the nearest robust competitor, S = robust survival hypothesis, and DMAX = a maximal data set.  In that case, I argue:
(1)    Survivalists have not presented good enough reasons to believe that Pr(DMAX/S) > Pr(DMAX/C), much less that Pr(DMAX/S) >> Pr(DMAX/C).
[Editorial Comment: Pr(DMAX/S) means “the probability of the maximal data set given the survival hypothesis.” Hence, the whole expression states “the probability of the maximal data set given the survival hypothesis is greater than the probability of the maximal data set given the nearest robust competitor.  Since  “>>” means much greater, the second expression is a stronger one.]
(2)    There are overriding reasons for supposing that Pr(DMAX/S) ≤ Pr(DMAX/C).
[Editorial Comment: this expression says “the probability of the maximal data set given the survival hypothesis is less than or equal to  the probability of the maximal data set given the nearest robust competitor.]
To be clear, we are here concerned with a comparative probability of the data given each of the competing hypotheses.  This is the posterior probability of the evidence [Pr(e/h)], not to be confused with the posterior probability of the hypothesis [Pr(h/e)].  Following the common practice in confirmation theory I’ll refer to such posterior probabilities as “likelihoods,” and by extension the “likelihood of a hypothesis” will refer to the extent to which a hypothesis renders the evidence or data probable.  (The likelihood of a hypothesis is distinct from the probability of a hypothesis, as the latter refers to the extent to which the evidence renders the hypothesis probable).  So my view with respect to the living-agent psi hypothesis is that I don’t think survivalists have really shown that the survival hypothesis has a likelihood superior to a sufficiently robust living-agent psi hypothesis, at least not if the data set has sufficiently broad parameters.  More strongly stated, my view is that the likelihood of the survival hypothesis is less than or equal to the likelihood of the nearest robust competitor.
It’s important to underscore here that the argument for supposing that Pr(DMAX/S) ≤ Pr(DMAX/C) does not require the stronger claim that Pr(DMAX/C) > Pr(DMAX/S).  My position is also compatible with the following survivalist claim: Pr(DMIN/S) > Pr(DMIN/C), where DMIN = a more restricted data set.  So I work out my position in a way that is actually sensitive to the evidence-parameters problem.  Nonetheless, as I see it, (1) and (2) severally suffice to defeat the empirical argument for survival, at least to the extent to which the empirical argument depends on attributing to the survival hypothesis a superior likelihood over competitors.  So this will apply to Bayesian survival arguments that make use of likelihoods for the purposes of showing that the survival hypothesis is more probable than not.  It will also apply to Likelihoodist versions of the empirical argument for survival that are more modest in their pretensions, aiming only to show that the evidence (strongly) favors the survival hypothesis over the competitors solely on the grounds that the survival hypothesis has a superior likelihood.
It should be clear that the kind of comparative “adequacy” I’ve been focusing on here concerns “likelihoods” but of course many survivalists regard counter-explanations, such as the robust versions of the living-agent psi hypothesis, as (comparatively) inadequate for reasons other than those that bear on likelihoods.  For instance, many survivalists reject robust versions of the living-agent psi hypothesis because of its lack of independent testability and increased complexity. Since I regard these issues as determinants of prior probability (rather than explanatory power), I would parse the frequently encountered survivalist objection as maintaining that robust living-agent psi hypotheses have a lower prior probability than the survival hypothesis.  So the survivalist would presumably be claiming that Pr(S/K) > Pr(C/K) because C is more complex than S, fits less well with background knowledge, and we have no independent evidence for C (or some auxiliary contained in C).  Of course, on my analysis of priors, I think that Pr(S/K) ≤ Pr(C/K), at least if S and C refer to robust versions of survival and the nearest competitor and the background knowledge is what interlocutors in the debate typically include, e.g., scientific knowledge.
7 – Sayaka: Chris Carter has argued forcefully against the super-PSI hypothesis (or super-ESP, as some calls it). For example, he says “Evidence for the existence of ESP of the required power and range is practically nonexistent. Defenders of the super-ESP hypothesis are hard-pressed to find any such examples – outside of cases of apparent communication from the deceased.” According to Carter, no defender of super-PSI has ever been able to challenge this objection. What do you think of this objection?
Sudduth: It’s the stock in trade of empirical survivalists to reject appeals to super-psi on the grounds that this hypothesis lacks “independent support.”  Stephen Braude has challenged this objection for a number of years, and I present an argument against it in a forthcoming paper in The Survival Hypothesis: Essays on Mediumship, ed. Adam Rock (McFarland, 2014).  An earlier draft of the paper in question, “Is Survival the Best Explanation of Mediumship?”, is available on my professional website  Let me outline some of the salient points that I think significantly weaken the force of this objection.
First, from a Likelihoodist approach to confirmation theory, whether evidence favors hypothesis h1 over h2 depends solely on whether e is more to be expected given h1 than given h2, technically stated, whether Pr(e/h1) > Pr(e/h2).  A student walking down the hall from the Philosophy Department with three philosophy books in his hand favors the hypothesis that the student is a philosophy major over the hypothesis that the student is a biology major because the observational evidence is more likely given the former hypothesis than given the latter hypothesis.  Whether there is independent support for either hypothesis is not relevant to deciding which hypothesis the evidence favors, confirms, or supports.  Now of course, the Likelihoodist approach doesn’t tell us which hypothesis is likely to be true, and therefore it doesn’t tell us which hypothesis to accept or believe.  It only tells us which of two or more hypotheses a body of evidence favors or supports.  But the point here is that if I’m a Likelihoodist, I can make sense of the relevant data favoring the super-psi hypothesis over the survival hypothesis, even if super-psi lacks independent support.
Now the apparent shortcoming of my proposed Likelihoodist defense of the super-psi hypothesis is that lack of independent support may nonetheless be salient to our overall assessment of a hypothesis, and if we want to compare the survival hypothesis and its competitors, we might want to inquire about more than their comparative likelihoods. For example, the hypothesis that a very powerful demon intended me to pick the ace of spades has a higher likelihood than the hypothesis that my selection of the card was random, for the former hypothesis makes the selection of the card very probable and the latter makes it very improbable.  But the fact that the evidence favors the demon hypothesis here does not make the hypothesis very probable all things considered, and the crucial issue here, if we don’t have good evidence against the existence of such an entity, is quite plausibly that the demon hypothesis lacks independent support.  More generally stated, the demon hypothesis has a very low prior probability, and this is due in large part to the fact that it lacks independent support.
Now this point is significant from the vantage point of a possible defense of the empirical argument for survival.  Let’s suppose that Pr(DMAX/S&K) = Pr(DMAX/C&K).  That is, the predictive power or likelihoods of S and C are equivalent. The survival hypothesis might still have a greater posterior probability than C (maybe even be more probable than not) if its prior probability is greater, especially if the prior probability is much greater.  From a Bayesian viewpoint, if Pr(e/h1&k) = Pr(e/h2&k), then Pr(h1/e&k) > Pr(h2/e&k) just if Pr(h1/k) > Pr(h2/k).  That is to say, if two hypotheses have equal predictive power (or likelihoods), then the evidence and background knowledge confers a greater probability on h1 than h2 just if h1’s prior probability is greater than h2’s prior probability.  So a survivalist might simply argue that, worst case scenario, Pr(DMAX/S&K) = Pr(DMAX/C&K), but since Pr(S/K) >> Pr(C/K), the survival hypothesis has a greater posterior probability, maybe it’s still more probable than not.  To put this otherwise, a survivalist might argue that the net effect of deflating the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis on the grounds of co-equal likelihoods is negligible since the prior probability of the survival hypothesis is much greater.
I think this counter-argument would work if we were comparing the priors of “C” and a simple survival hypothesis, but as I’ve already argued, the explanatory candidates must be compared in their robust forms because simple survival has no explanatory power.  If the survivalist tries to shift to a simple survival hypothesis to inflate the prior probability of the survival hypothesis, this will deflate the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis. It will follow that Pr(DMAX/C&K) >> Pr(DMAX/S&K).  But, unfortunately for the survivalist, if “lack of independent support” drives down the prior probability of the appeal to so-called super-psi, it will also drive down the prior probability of the robust survival hypothesis since it also depends on a broad range of auxiliary hypotheses for which there is no independent support.  More generally, if “lack of independent support” is a defect of robust living-agent psi hypotheses, it will also be a defect of the robust living agent psi hypothesis.  So there’s no advantage to be had here for the survival hypothesis.  As I noted above, on my analysis, Pr(S/K) ≤ Pr(C/K), if “S” refers to a robust survival hypothesis.
Finally, the problem for the survivalist is exacerbated since the auxiliary assumptions required by the survival hypothesis (to have predictive power) includes an auxiliary hypothesis that attributes super-psi to discarnate persons (and possibly also living agents).  As Gauld, Braude, Emily Williams Kelly, and I have each argued, the survival hypothesis itself is committed to the existence of ESP of a required power and range examples of which survivalists would be hard pressed to find outside cases of apparent communications from the deceased.  As I argued my 2009 paper “Super-Psi and the Survivalist Interpretation of Mediumship,” if the communications attributed to the deceased in paradigmatic cases of mediumship are really from the deceased, they too have extraordinary powers of knowledge acquisition, often requiring that they telepathically or clairvoyantly mine information from multiple sources.  It’s only the unwarranted assumption that death increases the potency of psi, or some such other speculative assumption, that allows survivalists to think that they are immune from this objection to super-psi.  But of course, they’re merely taking refuge in a further assumption for which there is no independent evidence.
But there’s another part of Carter’s objection of which I’m suspicious, namely the demand to produce examples of ESP of the “required” power and range outside cases of survival.
First, why is there a requirement that psi be super-psi in order to deflate the explanatory superiority of the survival hypothesis? Empirical survivalists routinely assert this, but Braude has shown that the assertion rests on various implausible assumptions.  Moreover, I’ve discussed in detail why appeals to living-agent psi challenge the survival hypothesis without requiring an appeal to super-psi.  See my the previously mentioned forthcoming “Is Survival the Best Explanation of Mediumship?” and my “A Critical Response to David Lund’s Argument for Postmortem Survival” (Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2013, 27: 277-316).
Second, I don’t know what kind of evidence would count as clear evidence for super-psi but not be capable of being construed as evidence for survival by empirical survivalists.  You may recall that back in the 1970s the Philip Group produced ostensible living-agent psychokinetic effects that resembled the phenomena of physical mediumship, complete with messages from a “deceased personality” named Philip.  Philip was a fictional person created by the group of experimenters, and his ostensible communications through raps and knocks corresponded to the details of the fictional biography created by members of the group. Yet David Fontana gave the Philip Group phenomena a survivalist interpretation by positing an earthbound spirit intent on fooling the group by masquerading as their fictional character Philip. (See Fontana, Is There An Afterlife? 2005, p. 112).  Well, of course.  If there were some earthbound spirit with such an intention and the power to carry out his deception, we would expect to find the evidence associated with the Philip Group experiments. By parity of reasoning, the hypothesis that a malicious and powerful demon wanted me to select the ace of spades I drew from the deck of cards renders my draw quite probable, certainly more probable than the alternative hypothesis that my draw was completely random.  You see, you can select any datum and adopt a hypothesis that renders the datum very probable or more probable than it would be given competing hypotheses.  The difficulty in meeting the survivalist challenge to produce evidence for super-psi outside cases of survival may not be the absence of such evidence, but the survivalist proclivity to see such evidence where it arises as evidence for survival.  Since what counts as a case of survival is precisely what’s in dispute by the parties in the debate, the challenge begs the question.
And of course the previous point highlights the final problem with Carter’s objection. Although it’s not clear what would count as unambiguous evidence for living-agent super-psi (vs. survival), what is clear is that no empirical survivalist has met the challenge to provide independent support for the dozen or so required auxiliary hypotheses required for survival to have predictive efficacy.  And this request does not beg the question.  It’s simply another instance of the general requirement imposed by Carter himself with respect to the super-psi hypothesis.  What Carter and other survivalists who take his position need to do is (i) explicitly acknowledge the content or range of the assumptions required for survival to yield likelihoods (of the evidence) that exceed the likelihoods (of the evidence) given rival hypotheses and (ii) provide independent support for as many of these auxiliary hypotheses as they can.  Until this can be done, the empirical case for survival has not been worked out with adequate logical rigor, and it certainly does not deserve to be considered a genuine scientific or even quasi-scientific hypothesis.
8 – Sayaka: In connection with the above objection, survivalists suggest that the super-PSI hypothesis is ad hoc, because of the lack of any independent evidence for super-PSI, besides the putative cases of survival. (It’s like arguing that the reincarnation type cases are best explained by extraterrestials implanting false memories, without having any independent evidence for the existence of aliens, a point pressed by philosopher Robert Almeder in his response to atheist philosopher Steven Hales). Some survivalist consider this to be the most crushing objection against super-PSI. What’s your reply?
Sudduth: Given what I have argued above, if this objection is a crushing objection against the super-psi hypothesis, it’s also a crushing objection to the survival hypothesis, in which case the survivalist is hoisted by his own petard.  As I’ve already noted, the simple supposition of survival makes no specific predictions, much less does it predict any of the fine-grained features of the actual data, unless it’s supplemented by auxiliary assumptions of a wide-ranging sort. Hence, the lack of independent support objection is just as applicable to the robust survival hypothesis as it is to the super-psi hypothesis. Even if we assume that there is independent evidence for survival, there would also have to be independent evidence for the range of auxiliary assumptions needed for the survival hypothesis to have predictive power. Almeder has not provided this independent support, nor have other survivalists.
So why aren’t the auxiliary hypotheses employed by the survivalist ad hoc in nature?  I noted above that among such auxiliary hypotheses would be the attribution of super-psi to discarnate persons.  Well, then, if the super-psi hypothesis is ad hoc, so also is the survival hypothesis since it must rely on super-psi assumptions, or further assumptions whose only purpose for being invoked is that they would lead us to expect discarnate persons to have greatly enhanced cognitive and causal powers.  But take another example, this time from Almeder. He argues that if reincarnation is true, then we would expect to find people with past life memories, which Almeder says is confirmed by the fact that people claim to have past life memories.  Setting aside that this is not a specific prediction, Almeder makes it clear that what sanctions the prediction here is the psychological criterion of personal identity.  So here’s an admission of an auxiliary hypothesis, but clearly more needs to be assumed because we would have to account for a potentially disconfirming datum, to wit, many people appear to have no past life memories.
There are, of course, many auxiliary hypotheses we could introduce here so that the reincarnation hypothesis was consistent with the facts:  people remember past lives but claim they don’t, people don’t recall their past lives because they possess them in the form of repressed memories, their last reincarnation was as a non-human and their memories were erased (perhaps memories only pass from human to human incarnations), they will eventually recall their past life at some point in their present life, or people with no past life memories are living their first life.  It doesn’t matter which of these we select, or none. The point here is that a reincarnation hypothesis requires that we build into it assumptions that are no less ad hoc than the ones needed by an extra-terrestrial hypothesis.  And here it seems to me that living-agent psi hypotheses have a plausible advantage.  As Braude has shown, whatever we might say about so-called super-psi, to the extent that survivalists take seriously the evidence for living-agent psi, there is at least independent evidence for “dandy psi,” as exemplified, for example, in the more impressive remote viewing experiments in the Stargate Project.  In my paper critiquing David Lund’s argument for survival (referenced above), I argued that ordinary psi, which includes “dandy psi,” is sufficient to pose an explanatory challenge to the survival hypothesis.  I’d say this advantage would extend to their comparative prior probabilities, at least to the extent to which independent support is being invoked as a determinant of prior probability.  I think it’s plausible to construct a robust living-agent psi hypothesis with reference to dandy psi.

The Boundless Ocean of Experience

It has now been since six months since I moved into Jikoji Zen Center.  People often ask me what I’ve learned since being here. I prefer to speak of what I’ve experienced. Yes, there is an experiential understanding, but it often resists being neatly articulated.  Everything comes back to experience, and while the contemplative engagement with experience is wonderful, it remains difficult to fully articulate.
The past sixth months have been a powerful period of transition for me on multiple levels, precipitated by the collapse of life as I had known it for the prior three years. I came to Jikoji for healing, to cultivate what I called “compassionate knowing,” and to find the openness where I could believe in love if she should ever speak to me again, though, as Kahlil Gibran so eloquently wrote, her voice had once shattered my dreams.  But love takes many forms, and it’s the one you weren’t seeking that reveals itself and sets you free, allows you to fall joyfully and with surrender into the Boundless Ocean of Experience. . .
The experience of just observing, which tends to illuminate the inner compulsion or need to do something with a situation.  What is watched here in both the outer and inner aspect of experience. On the inside, it’s a watching of thoughts, images, feelings, and sensations, including observing the “inner compulsion” to do something with what arises in the mind, e.g., creating a narrative, rendering a judgment, and so forth.  On the outside, it’s the observation of what is happening “out there,” e.g., a leaf falling, car moving, dog barking, etc.  Everything is seen as it is happening, distinguished from mental story telling about what is happening.  If I could only see the apple as it is, my self conception would shatter into a million pieces.  Of course, the idea here isn’t to end mental phenomena, to cease story telling and seeking, much less to retreat from action.  The thing is just to see it clearly and to understand that there is more present here, in this moment of my experience, than me, than this body, than this mind, that is, these thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
The experience of being OK with myself as I am, and the inevitable corollary of this, namely being OK with whatever feelings or thoughts arise in me.  Perhaps anger arises in me.  Perhaps blissful feeling.  Or maybe there is sadness present. No need or compulsion to get rid of what is unpleasant, nor to cling to what is pleasant.  Just to let everything be as it is, this is to treat everything you are in this moment as an expression of the Absolute.  Any consciousness that can hold all the opposites is inconceivably vast, and it’s clearly seen that this “I” is, in the words of Gibran, a “boundless drop to a boundless sea.” This is why acceptance is always a revelation of our largeness.  And by “acceptance” I do not mean something the mind does or may not do. Whatever is experienced has already been accepted, otherwise it would be no part of your experience. The deepest acceptance is just the abiding presence of awareness that conditions each moment of any experience.
The experience of silence, not just verbal silence but the silence that is experienced inwardly when one falls into the nothingness that separates the rising and falling of one thought, feeling, or sensation. This is the collapse of mental phenomena into the nothingness from which they emerged, just as waves collapse into the sea that gave them birth.  Beneath the anger, there is fear. Beneath the fear, there is pain.  Beneath the pain there is tranquility. Beneath the tranquility, if you’re lucky to get that far, there is nothing at all.  This nothing is awakening. This awakening is wherever silence is. And wherever you find the silence, you find your most faithful lover and kiss the face of God.
The experience of nothing “special” happening at all: just watching a deer eat plants outside, listening to a Blue Jay’s screeching voice, mopping the resident kitchen floor, lighting incense in my room, striking a slab of wood hanging outside the zendo in the pouring rain at 5:45am, making an egg and cheese scramble for breakfast, listening to Black Sabbath, driving my car down a dirt road, playing guitar, remembering my pain, watching rain fall, recalling a blissful moment, buying a shirt, writing a blog post. These are truly the moments to live for because ultimately there is nothing happening but this, and this is love all around us.  Dive into this boundless ocean of experience.  Realize with each blink of your eye, whether you open to the height of bliss or the depth of despair, this is as good as it gets. This moment now is the home to which you return again and again, and it’s the greatest gift of all.



Book Update 11/22/14

At present, I’m intensively working on completing my book on empirical arguments for postmortem survival.  I have a benchmark date of December 1, 2014 for the completion of the first half, which due to personal circumstances last spring through summer has taken me a lot longer to complete than anticipated. Most of the material for the second half of the book is completed but needs to be revised and streamlined with the newly reworked first half of the book.

I will have chapter drafts available for interested readers during the first week of December. Although my window for revisions is small, I’m open to comments from interested readers.  I’m also hoping this might be the first stage of an online symposium I’d like to do on the book in spring 2015. 

If you’re interested in receiving chapter drafts, please contact me by email with the request. I’m developing a reader distribution list at present and I will include you on it.  Also, the latest brief abstract of the book appears under Work in Progress on my website. In December I  will post the “Contents” page and an analytical overview of the chapters, and by the beginning of the new year some selections from chapter drafts.
Also, I will be blogging more on new material related to my book in the coming weeks, including comments on philosopher Robert Almeder’s work on the empirical arguments for survival and my own hitherto undisclosed personal investigations into mediumship over the past few years.

Interview on Postmortem Survival (Part 2) – repost

In January 2013 Jime Sayaka interviewed me on the topic of postmortem survival for his now defunct blog Subversive Thinking.  In what turned out to be a lengthy interview (and preview of arguments in my forthcoming book), I outlined in considerable detail my critique of empirical arguments for survival, as well as explained why common survivalist defenses of these arguments lack cogency.  Below I repost my lengthy response to Sayaka’s fourth question, something of an invite for me to share my main criticisms of empirical survival arguments.

4 – Sayaka: “Professor Sudduth, you have been a philosophical critic of the survivalist hypothesis to explain the empirical data from mediumship and other putative evidence for survival of consciousness. What are your objections for the survival hypothesis?”

Sudduth: Well, let me begin with some important caveats and clarifications. Unlike many other philosophers, I don’t object to the survival hypothesis itself, nor do I deny that people can be epistemically justified in believing in survival.  I’ve already stated that I subscribe to the eastern philosophical and spiritual tradition of Vedanta.  So I don’t believe that what I essentially am shares in the limits or destiny of my body or individual mind.  I am a survivalist.  I also don’t deny that empirical evidence can add to the justification of belief in survival, for instance, by adding to the evidential probability of the survival hypothesis.  And I think there’s much to be said for how the survival hypothesis may draw support from multiple grounds, for example, empirical, philosophical, and religious or spiritual.  But this requires a very different approach than has been traditionally taken by the majority of empirical survivalists.  My present project is, therefore, concerned with the critique and dismantling of the existing and deeply entrenched tradition of classical empirical arguments for survival. Hopefully it paves the way for new and fruitful approaches to empirical arguments for survival.
So let’s unpack some of the details of my argument.
As I see it, there’s really no way to make an empirical case for survival unless we can show that the features of the world marked out by the relevant data are what we would expect if the survival hypothesis is true, and furthermore that these features are more to be expected if survival is true than if survival is false (or, more modestly, if some alternative non-survival hypothesis is true).  So what is often called predictive power, at least understood in a broad sense, is essential to an empirical case for survival.  As it happens, most survivalists have either claimed or assumed the same, usually in connection with how the “explanatory power” of the survival hypothesis is parsed.  But it’s more generally relevant because predictive power, or the probability of the evidence given a hypothesis, plays an important role in the two dominant approaches to evidence assessment in confirmation theory, Bayesian and Likelihoodist approaches, both of which I will subsequently discuss.
However, predictive salience subjects the survival hypothesis to anauxiliary hypothesis requirement.  Theoretically, this arises from the general Duhem-Quine thesis in philosophy of science that single statements rarely have predictive consequences, unless they’re supplemented with auxiliary hypotheses.  So hypotheses can only be tested via their predictive consequences in bundles or sets.  This is repeatedly demonstrated in the history of science, but I remember first seeing it dramatically illustrated in the old television series Columbo. When detective Columbo tests his hypothesis that Dr. Brimmer murdered Mrs. Kennicut, he relies on a number of additional assumptions, many of which are statements about Dr. Brimmer (e.g., having a particular connection to the victim, being left handed, having a temper, wearing a diamond ring with a unique shape). These auxiliary assumptions, together with the hypothesis that Dr. Brimmer committed the crime, leads Columbo to expect to find the crucial pieces of evidence, which only function as “clues” because they are linked to the murderer by way of a particular set of added assumptions.
It’s a central part of my argument that this is true with respect to the survival hypothesis.  The data collected from mediumship or cases of the reincarnation type only serve as evidence for personal survival once various auxiliary hypotheses are introduced to facilitate the link between the data and the continued existence of the deceased person. This is often glossed over, or simply not acknowledged at all, because empirical survivalists routinely treat the survival hypothesis as a generic survival hypothesis, for example, the survival of individual consciousness, the mind, or the self.  But this kind of simple survival hypothesis does not lead us to expect the relevant data, unless it is supplemented with a wide range of auxiliary statements about the knowledge, intentions, and causal powers of postmortem persons, as well as the mechanism or process of postmortem communication (in the case of mediumship) and rebirth (in reincarnation cases).
The necessary reliance on auxiliary hypotheses is clear if we carefully read classic works on the empirical arguments for survival such as E.R. Dodds’s “Why I Do Not Believe in Survival” (1934), Hornell Hart’s Engima of Survival (1959) and Alan Gauld’s Mediumship and Survival (1982).  Hence, inasmuch as the empirical case for survival depends on predictive derivations that logically link the survival hypothesis to specific features of the empirical world (captured by the relevant data), the empirical case for survival requires what I call a robust survival hypothesis.   While empirical survivalists usually assume some robust version of the survival hypothesis, they rarely acknowledge this with adequate transparency; much less do they critically explore it.  Consequently, they fail to consider its significance to the overall case for survival.  And this is a crucial issue as I see it because the satisfaction of the auxiliary hypothesis requirement has significant consequences for assessments of both the prior probability of the survival hypothesis and its explanatory power, the two determinants of the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis.
Here I make two points.
First, I argue that the survival hypothesis can only adequately satisfy the auxiliary hypothesis requirement at the cost of a significant reduction of prior probability.  The predictive power of the survival hypothesis (i.e., its ability to lead us to expect the relevant data) is inversely proportional to its prior probability:  as the predictive power of the survival hypothesis is increased, its prior probability is decreased, specifically as a result of increased complexity and less fit with background knowledge.  So a survival hypothesis with great explanatory power will I’m afraid not have very high prior probability, and certainly not greater prior probability than the nearest competitors.  Within a Bayesian framework, this will significantly lower the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis.
Second, the survival hypothesis can only adequately satisfy the auxiliary hypothesis by adopting assumptions that lack independent support and testability.  In this way, they are quite different from Columbo’s auxiliary hypotheses, or the kinds of auxiliary statements employed by scientists.  For example, there is no independent evidence for supposing that persons, should any of them survive death, will have the intention and requisite powers to communicate with living persons, much less in ways that as much as approximate the modality of mediumship or apparitions. We also have no independent reason to suppose that discarnate persons will have awareness of events taking place in our world or the mental lives of living persons, which is required if mediumistic communications genuinely originate from discarnate persons.  Furthermore, we have no good independent reason to suppose that some or all living persons would reincarnate on earth, much less as humans or with past life memories, congenital birth marks corresponding to the manner of their death in a former life, etc.  In short, we don’t know what would happen to consciousness if it should survive death, nor do we know anything about the causal laws to which postmortem existence and agency would be subject.  And, at present at any rate, there is no way to independently test hypotheses at this juncture.  In fact, if the afterlife is anything like dream experiences or some other similar altered states of consciousness—the closest conjectured analogues of the afterlife—I would say the relevant data are actually not what we would expect.
Now the lack of independent testability has important implications for the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis.  Since the epistemic credentials of the auxiliary hypotheses are quite weak, they can only be methodologically sanctioned by a very permissive principle governing the inclusion of auxiliary hypotheses to test the survival hypothesis.  The problem here is that it is prima facie implausible to suppose that any such liberal principle will simultaneously entitle empirical survivalists to their stock of auxiliary hypotheses and not entitle others from including whatever auxiliary hypotheses are needed to generate predictive consequences for proposed alternative non-survival explanations.  In other words, the empirical survivalist faces the problem of purchasing predictive power for the survival hypothesis at the cost of indirectly purchasing it for alternative hypotheses as well.  So it won’t be the case that a robust survival hypothesis will lead us to expect data that are otherwise improbable, nor even that the data would be more likely given a robust survival hypothesis than robust alternative hypotheses.
Now consider the bearing of these points on run-of-the-mill defenses of empirical arguments for survival.
First, consider defenses of the prior probability of the survival hypothesis.  When empirical survivalists defend the prior probability of the survival hypothesis, they consider the hypothesis only in its simple form, for example, the mere supposition of one’s individual consciousness persisting after death.  There’s a lot of expended effort to defend substance dualism, critique materialist philosophies of mind, or dismantle arguments from cognitive neuroscience that purport to show the dependence of consciousness on neural substrates and hence a functioning brain.  Important as these moves are, their success is limited.  While they may remove prominent reasons for supposing that the prior probability of the survival hypothesis is low, they do not show that its prior probability is high.  More importantly, they do not defeat arguments that purport to show that the prior probability of the survival hypothesis is low, not because of the supposition of survival itself, but because of the nature and consequences of the auxiliary hypotheses that are needed to generate predictive power for the survival hypothesis.
Next, consider critiques of the nearest explanatory competitors. There’s a pretty widespread consensus in the survival literature that the nearest explanatory competitor, which ostensibly accounts for the relevant data, is the appeal to living-agent psi in the form of extra sensory perception and/or psychokinesis among living agents.  Now among empirical survivalists it’s virtual orthodoxy that this counter-explanation fails, for at least two reasons:  
1.  Appeals to living agent psi are rejected since they are allegedly inferior in explanatory power.  For example, living-agent psi does not lead us to expect living persons exhibiting personality traits and skills characteristic of the deceased, as if the case in the better cases of the reincarnation type and trance mediumship.  Also, living-agent psi would allegedly not lead us to expect the complex sets of veridical information found in these cases.  This would require that the data be psychically derived from multiple sources, but outside survival-type cases there’s no evidence that living-agent psi has this kind of efficacy. 
2.  The second line of attack is to concede a possible version of the living-agent psi hypothesis that might explain these data.  If living-agent psi were stretched into a “super-psi” hypothesis—positing living-agent psi functioning of a quite extraordinary degree or kind—and further supplemented with various supplemental assumptions about how human abilities and (conscious and unconscious) motivations are likely to play a role in accounting for the data.   But empirical survivalists typically reject this strengthened living-agent psi hypothesis because it’s highly complex and lacks independent support. In Bayesian terms, this explanatory competitor can only purchase predictive success at the cost of significantly lowered prior probability.
In the light of my earlier observations, it should be clear why these objections fail.  The strategy suggested by the above objections is essentially to argue that a robust survival hypothesis has greater explanatory power than simple explanatory competitors (e.g., a vanilla living-agent psi hypothesis), and a simple survival hypothesis has greater prior probability than the nearest robust competitor (living-agent psi + auxiliaries).  This may be true, but it’s ultimately irrelevant.  We must compare the values assigned to explanatory power and prior probability of robust versions of each of the candidate explanations.  When we try to do this, I argue that (a) the prior probability of the robust survival hypothesis is either equal to or less than the prior probability of the nearest robust explanatory competitor(s) and (b) the predictive power of the robust survival hypothesis is equal to or less than the predictive power of the nearest robust competitor(s).  From a Bayesian approach to calculating posterior probabilities, I think (a) and (b) significantly deflate the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis.  Consequently, the survival arguments fail to show that the posterior probability of the robust survival hypothesis, given the evidence and usual assignments to background knowledge, exceeds ½.
It is, of course, crucial to this argument that the content of the background knowledge and scope of the evidence be carefully spelled out, and I do so in my book. And there’s a thorny problem here concerning just where to draw the parameters that isolate the total available and relevant evidence.  The problem also appears with respect to identifying the parameters of background knowledge.  What we include as evidence and background knowledge has consequences for judgments of the posterior probability of h because it affects the values assigned with respect to prior probabilities (of h and e) and the posterior probability of e given h (i.e., predictive power).
For example, I would say that the robust survival hypothesis has greater explanatory power than the robust living-agent psi hypotheses when the parameters of the evidence are more narrowly drawn, e.g., vis-à-vis mediumship—excluding evidence that that communicators provide inconsistent and unreliable information and that mediumistic controls are sometimes fictitious and yet convey accurate information. In fact, evidence within narrow parameters frees the survival hypothesis from the need to adopt a number of auxiliary assumptions, and thereby circumvents conditions that would further lower the prior probability of the survival hypothesis.  So if we pick and choose the evidence, constrain its parameters in particular ways, the case for survival actually looks pretty good.  I suspect this is why some empirical survivalists think that the evidence for survival is good.  In much the same way, it looks like we have a good case for supposing that conditions are optimal for swimming at the beach given that the weather is warm, the ocean water isn’t turbulent, and there are only a modest number of people at the beach.  However, all this changes once we add that several sharks have been spotted in the waters earlier in the morning.  It’s a canon of inductive logic that you consider the total evidence available in assessing the net plausibility of a hypothesis.  I think this is yet another point where survival arguments are vulnerable because they typically operate with implausibly narrow parameters on the relevant evidence.  So one of my interests is to identify and carefully describe the total available evidence, as well as consider the implications of different parameters for background knowledge.

Standing in the Center of the Fire

(1) What is it to love, to truly love? It’s to embrace the deepest mystery and risk the greatest folly. It’s to bear your unbearable absence and find you inescapably present, recurring apparition of my nostalgic night.  It’s to watch for you at ocean’s edge and see you dancing as the waves. It’s to watch for you at sunset and see you as the light that is gradually transformed into night. What is love, you ask?  It’s to stand in the center of the fire with you and watch our world be burned, and then to be buried beneath the ashes of passion’s tortured expectations.
(2) If you wish to open your heart wide to love, open your heart wide to pain, for he who suffers little loves even less.  Therefore kiss with tender lips the center of your sorrow and make love to your relentless pain. Then you shall dance with desire and stand in the center of the fire.
(3) What is it to bear the accusation of betrayal?  It’s to be alone with myself in sorrow, not the sorrow of knowing that what you have believed about me is false, but in the deeper sorrow of knowing that you were utterly convinced it was true.
(4) I want you to understand, perhaps for the first time, the fire in which I have stood.  So stop running, stop hiding, take a deep breath, inhale, and experience yourself, the flames that burned away my skin and bones, and set my spirit free.
(5) What I found unacceptable or utterly reprehensible in you has now become the most beautiful revelation of myself.  In the judgment, I was separate from you and unknown to myself. Being divested of judgment, I can now only observe you and in this there is the clearest seeing of myself.
(6) Have you dissolved the need that stood in the way of realizing your own inner fulness? If so, kiss me for the first time, and look upon me as a blind person Christ has given sight.
(7) More than healing, I want you to recover. . .love, the very thing you lost the day you were born. So stop your thinking, stop your seeking, and dissolve your delusions with a song, knowing that, like each moment, in this precious moment as the melody leaves your lips everything is OK because “this” is as good as it gets.
(8) In my bliss I felt enlarged, and I expanded so far that I believed I embraced the sun and moon.  And then a great emptiness fell upon me, gnawed at me, and hollowed out my soul. In the same awareness in which bliss arose, depression and sorrow found their place too. To contain these opposites is to be larger than the universe itself. In you and me all opposites dance.  We are just that vast.
(9) I would reach you with words if I could, but silence is the most faithful lover.
(10) If I knew that this would be our last night together, I would give you just one thing, my silence, for this love of mine is not something that can be spoken, nor even understood, not even by the gods.
(11) There are places in the world that we can only hope to find in our dreams. I will go there with you.
(12) This ground upon which I stand is not solid.  It’s soft like sand; fluid like a river. It’s flowing towards some apparent center of my life.  And there at that illusory center, life’s drama is underway. And there everything is moving as a whirlpool, circular movement flowing downwards into the other side of life, right into the unconscious, from which everything has emerged. The fire in which you and I stood yesterday is where we stand today, and where we stand today we shall stand tomorrow, in the center of this fast fading ember of life’s eternal flame.



Remembering Jason Zarri (1986-2014)

Jason Louis Zarri

This week I was heartbroken to learn of the death of Jason Zarri, long-time philosophy student of mine who was currently pursuing an MA in philosophy in our department. Jason took many of my courses during his undergraduate days at SFSU, and we had many conversations, even recently, outside of class on philosophical topics.  He was a brilliant student whose passion for inquiry greatly inspired his peers and my colleagues.

I am deeply, deeply saddened by his sudden death. I was due to offer him comments on a paper he had planned to submit for publication, and when I briefly saw him last, a couple of weeks ago, we made it a point to get together sometime this semester and get current on things.  Sadly this meeting with never happen. His last word to me was “congratulations,” left on my LinkedIn page the day before he died.  This sums up the kindness of his heart.
In these moments I’m reminded of the fragility of life, and the importance of returning to our ultimate intention for living. Our drama, our projects, our complaints . . . they are but footnotes in life’s eternal story.  For me I always come back to the storyline, which is love, the love out of which everything is arising, evolving and, yes, passing away.  And it takes the passing away, whether of a lover, friend, family member, or student, to bring us each home again. 
“Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” – Kahlil Gibran
I send the deepest intention of healing for Jason’s family, whose experience of loss is certainly inconceivably greater than my own sorrow over Jason’s death. I repost here the message I posted for Jason’s memorial, which is my meditation for today.
Dear Jason: you were an inspiration not only to your peers but also to your teachers.  Thank you for your gift of inspiring me as your teacher for so many years. I will remember you as a passionate inquirer into truth, but most importantly as a person who carried on this inquiry with a kind and loving heart. To live forever in the hearts of those you have touched in this way is to have achieved an immortality to which even the gods aspire. – With deep gratitude, Michael Sudduth


For blog readers who are local and who knew Jason. . . 
Jason Louis Zarri
Jun. 13, 1986 – Oct. 31, 2014
A Rosary will be held on Monday 11/10 at 10:00am with services to follow at 10:30am at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 837 Tennent Ave. Pinole 94564.
A procession will follow to the Queen of Heaven Cemetery, 1965 Reliez Valley Road, Lafayette.

Interview on Postmortem Survival (Part 1) – repost

In January 2013 Jime Sayaka interviewed me on the topic of postmortem survival for his now defunct blog Subversive Thinking.  In what turned out to be a lengthy interview (and preview of arguments in my forthcoming book), I outlined in considerable detail my critique of empirical arguments for survival, as well as explained why common survivalist defenses of these arguments lack cogency.  Below I repost my answers to the first three preliminary questions of the interview. In subsequent blogs I will repost other portions of the interview.  With regard to my book in progress, I’m presently deeply engaged with this project, up against a publisher deadline of end of January 2015.  In early December I intend to  provide an update concerning the book, including details on a possible online symposium to discuss chapter drafts with interested participants.  The description of my book in progress below is an adequate approximation to the project in its current form.  I am also working on plans for a series of roundtable discussions with other philosophers on the topic of the empirical arguments for survival. My aim is to publish these in my blog in the form discussion transcripts.

Jime Sayaka Interview with Michael Sudduth (1/19/14)
1 – Sayaka: “Professor Sudduth, how and why did you get interested in the paranormal and empirical research into the afterlife?”
Sudduth: My interest in the paranormal and postmortem survival originated from a series of paranormal experiences at different times in my life, but the interest has been sustained and shaped in significant ways by my academic interests in philosophy of mind, the nature of the human personality, and western and eastern spirituality.
I’d say that my curiosity in survival-related questions began when I was around eight years old.  After having recurrent apparitional experiences in the house I lived in with my parents at the time, I began wondering whether there were real things that I could not normally see but which became visible under certain conditions.  And seeing as I recognized some of the apparitions as deceased members of my family or friends of the family, the experiences prompted the question, is death really the end of our existence?  I never said anything about these experiences to my parents, but I remember feeling encouraged when a couple of years later my grandmother shared with me an apparitional experience she had of my grandfather shortly after his death.  And I recall, on another occasion, overhearing another family member secretly discussing her apparitional experience of my grandfather.
In my teenage years I had a variety of paranormal experiences over a two-year period.  Given my prior experiences, I decided to document the experiences in a journal I kept at the time.  I was also inspired by the 1972 television series the Sixth Sense to explore these experiences through various readings in parapsychology.  Interestingly enough, during this time my mother reported an apparitional experience of my grandfather a few days before the death of my grandmother.  Although my mother had no knowledge of my grandmother’s experience several years earlier, her description of the apparition was remarkably similar to what my grandmother had described.
After a lengthy hiatus in thinking about these matters during my later teens and 20s, my interest was briefly resurrected when I encountered the writings of H.H. Price while studying philosophy of religion as a graduate student at the University of Oxford.  Price came on my radar through my reading of John Hick’s Death and Eternal Life, a text that had been recommended to me a couple of years earlier by a professor at Santa Clara University, where I did my undergraduate work in philosophy.  Although I was greatly impressed with Price’s reflections on the empirical approach to survival, my conservative Christian views at the time, together with my focus on other topics in graduate school, dissuaded me from a further exploration.
Two later events facilitated my shift towards a sustained engagement with the alleged empirical evidence for postmortem survival.  While a professor at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, I assigned readings on survival (including articles by H.H. Price) in my philosophy of religion classes. This eventually evolved into a senior seminar I taught on John Hick’s Death and Eternal Life text.  In 2002 I left Saint Michael’s College and moved into a historic home in Windsor, Connecticut. There my ex-wife and I had a large number of paranormal experiences, which I documented in written form.  After moving out of the house in 2004, I conducted some interviews with prior occupants of the home and learned that they had similar experiences.  I became very fascinated with the nature of these shared experiences, seemingly tied to a particular physical location, and their possible implications for postmortem survival.  So I embarked upon a critical exploration of the topical territory that has defined a central part of my academic research and writing to this day.
Since I had developed an independent interest in various questions in the philosophy of mind prior to 2004, my exploration of survival nicely dovetailed with my other academic interests, including my specialization in philosophy of religion, where I had given considerable attention to the nature of religious experience and arguments for the existence of God.  In addition to devouring earlier philosophical explorations of the empirical approach to survival (e.g., the works of C.D. Broad, H.H. Price, and C.J. Ducasse), I also acquainted myself with the works of more recent and contemporary philosophers who have taken an interest in the subject matter, e.g., David Ray Griffin, Robert Almeder, and Stephen Braude. I established a friendship with Braude, as well as with parapsychologist Loyd Auerbach.  I’ve had the added benefit of participating in a number of paranormal investigations and developing friendships with various mediums over the past eight years.  So my thinking on this topic has been shaped by a wide-range of first-hand experiences, as well as my research and training as a philosopher.
On my current view, I think there is a legitimate debate about what exactly paranormal phenomena establish about the reality and nature of postmortem survival.  That’s an issue at the center of my present work.  I am a Vedantin philosopher, so I certainly accept the idea of survival, at least broadly understood as the postmortem persistence of consciousness.  I remain skeptical, though, about many of the claims made on behalf of the ostensible empirical evidence for survival.  For me, the most relevant aspect of the inquiry into this topical territory is the role it plays in my own journey of self-exploration.
2 – Sayaka: “You’re working [on] a forthcoming book on survival of consciousness. Can you tell us when it is going to be published, and how it differs from the rest of the survival literature?”
Sudduth: Yes. I’m presently working on a book on survival. It’s a philosophical engagement and critique of the traditional empirical arguments for survival, very much in the tradition of Broad, Ducasse, and Price, and the sort of project that John Hick and H.D. Lewis encouraged philosophers of religion to take up back in the 1970s. I anticipate its completion by fall 2014 [revised: January 2015].  Palgrave Macmillan will be publishing the book in the Palgrave Frontiers in Philosophy of Religion series.  As you know, I’ve published a number of papers on the topic since 2009, but I’ve actually had the idea of writing a book on survival for sometime now.  It’s been a gradual process of digesting the large body of material in the subject area, deeply processing various aspects of the debate, and letting my own thoughts reach a certain level of maturity.
Quite naturally, the book is motivated by my personal and professional attraction to the topic, but it’s more specifically motivated by my interest in sharpening the empirical survival debate in several ways.  Quite honestly, much of the literature on the topic since the 1960s has been disappointing.  Apart from a small number of publications, the literature has lacked the philosophical sophistication that characterized the works of Broad, Ducasse, and Price.  To be sure, there have been some good works on the topic, for example, Alan Gauld’s Mediumship and Survival, R.W.K. Paterson’s Philosophy and Belief in a Life after Death, David Ray Griffin’s Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration, and—most importantly—Stephen Braude’s Immortal Remains.  On the whole, though, since the 1960s, the literature has stagnated. Most of the publications simply overwhelm the reader with information, not conceptually clear and carefully reasoned argument.  Survival is typically asserted as an ostensible conclusion drawn from a mass of empirical data for which there is apparently no better explanation, to which some authors append facile dismissals of materialist philosophies of mind and arguments from the data of cognitive neuroscience purporting to show the dependence of consciousness on a functioning brain.
The widespread claim among empirical survivalists—survivalists who endorse empirical evidence for survival—is that the survival hypothesis provides the best explanation of the data.  But what does it mean for a hypothesis to explain data?  How does a hypothesis explaining data convert the data into evidential cash value? What logical principles are being enlisted to show this and assess the weight of the evidence relative to competing hypotheses? And how do we arrive at judgments concerning the net plausibility of the survival hypothesis?  These are crucial questions for evaluating the empirical case for survival, but you’ll find a deafening silence with respect to these questions in survival literature since the 1960s.  One gets the impression from much of the literature that the survival hypothesis simply wins by explanatory default:  since nothing else explains the data, survival explains the data.
The lack of conceptual clarity and logical rigor in the literature is particularly unfortunate when compared with how, during the past forty years, debates in the Anglo-America philosophy of religion have advanced to increasing levels of sophistication, as illustrated by the application of developments in modal logic, confirmation theory, and general epistemology to traditional arguments for the existence of God. For example, there’s nothing in the survival literature comparable in logical rigor to philosopher Richard Swinburne’s the Existence of God (Oxford University Press, 1979, 2008), in which Swinburne uses Bayesian confirmation theory to argue for the existence of God. Probability in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Jake Chandler and Victoria Harrison (Oxford University Press, 2012), highlights many such developments in Anglo-American philosophy of religion during the past forty years.
So my book is largely a conceptual exploration of the survival hypothesis itself and a critical examination of the logic of empirical arguments for survival.  It’s an exploration in the philosophy of postmortem survival focused on the prospects for a logically rigorous and successful empirical argument for survival.  Naturally, I draw on my training as an analytic philosopher well acquainted with the conceptual territory of Anglo-American metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of science.
3 – Sayaka: “Could you outline the central argument of your book?”
Sudduth: Certainly.
My central thesis is that traditional empirical arguments for survival based on the data of psychical research—what I call classical empirical arguments—do not succeed in showing that personal survival is more probable than not, much less that it is highly probable, especially where the survival hypothesis is treated as a scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis.  So my objection is first and foremost a criticism of what I take to be unjustified claims regarding the posterior probability of the hypothesis of personal survival, that is, it’s net plausibility given the relevant empirical data and standard background knowledge.  Consequently, the classical arguments, at least as traditionally formulated, do not provide a sufficiently robust epistemic justification for belief in personal survival.  That’s my thesis.
Why do I take this position?  Traditionally, the empirical case for survival has been based at least in part on the ostensible explanatory power of the survival hypothesis. From this viewpoint, the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis will be favorable only if the hypothesis has great explanatory power.  In more conceptually sophisticated accounts, survival is inferred from its explanatory power assisted by a favorable judgment concerning its antecedent or prior probability (i.e., roughly, how likely the survival hypothesis is independent of the empirical data it is adduced to explain).  My view, simply stated, is that proponents of the classical arguments make one or more of three mistakes.  They significantly overestimate (i) the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis, (ii) its prior probability, and/or (iii) the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis given the (approximate) values they assign to (i) or (ii), or both.
To fill out my critical evaluation a bit more, consider the following formulation of a widespread version of the empirical argument for survival:
(1) There is some data set D.
(2) The survival hypothesis, S, is the best explanation of D.
(3) S has a prior probability that is either not too low or greater than the nearest explanatory competitor(s).
Therefore, it is at least more probable than not that:
(4) The survival hypothesis is true.
The argument is an inference to best explanation supplemented by a favorable judgment concerning the prior probability of the survival hypothesis.  I call this the “strengthened explanatory argument” for survival (hereafter, SEA) to distinguish it from a similar explanatory argument that depends solely on explanatory considerations, with no consideration of the prior probability of the survival hypothesis.  I don’t think the basic explanatory argument can show that survival is more probable than not, so SEA is the most appropriate generic version of the empirical argument for survival when it comes to the stronger claims made on behalf of the evidence.  So SEA considered here explicitly takes it that the survival hypothesis has a favorable posterior probability, specifically a probability greater than ½.
Following the tendency of recent parapsychologists and philosophers, I formulate the empirical case for survival as a cumulative case argument.  So D = the relevant set of data drawn from five kinds of paranormal phenomena:  near-death and out-of-body experiences, apparitional experiences, mediumistic communications, and cases of the reincarnation type.  Furthermore, with respect to premise (2), I take the “explanatory power” of the survival hypothesis to be a function of the extent to which it leads us to expect the relevant data, as well as the extent to which the data are otherwise surprising or improbable.  As for premise (3), I understand the prior probability of a hypothesis h, where h is being proposed to explain observational evidence e, to be the probability of h independent of e, as determined by criteria such as h’s simplicity and h’s fit with background knowledge.  According to premise (3), the survival hypothesis has a prior probability that is not very low or at least greater than the nearest explanatory competitor(s), where the nearest competitor is a non-survival hypothesis that purports to lead us to expect much if not all of the relevant data.
If we formulate the empirical argument for survival as SEA, then my criticisms can be more precisely stated.  I argue that there are overriding reasons for supposing that we are not justified to believe (2) and (3) or, even if we accept premises (2) and (3), (4) is not more probable than not given these premises.  In either case, it follows that we are not justified to believe the conclusion (4) on the basis of (2) and (3), where (4) is assigned the value greater than ½.  Hence SEA does not succeed in showing that survival is more probable than its negation.
SEA, of course, needs careful unpacking and analysis.  There’s much that needs to be said about how empirical survivalists have tried to support the premises of the argument.  In my book I employ a Bayesian approach to confirmation theory to provide a more precise articulation of SEA, as well as to illuminate why the argument fails. I also consider the implications of alternative approaches to evidence assessment for the prospects of a good empirical argument for survival. As we continue the interview, I’ll fill out some of these details.


The next repost installment of this interview will appear next week. – M.S.

Confessions of a Bullshit Philosopher

I’m a philosopher by profession, but only because I’m one first by nature.  More importantly, the particular kind of philosopher I am at present is a reflection of my total life situation and total life history.  It has always been this way.  For much of my adult life philosophy was solely a matter of conceptual analysis and logical argumentation, served with a side dish of historical information. Those who have followed my career in philosophy have noticed that philosophy has widened a lot for me in the past five years, partly as a result of my engagement with psychology, partly as a consequence of my embracing eastern spirituality, and partly from being in personal relationships that have profoundly showed me, in the words of Carl Jung, that “the judgment of the intellect is only part of the truth.” My “Cup of Nirvana” blog is an illustration of this widening conception of philosophical inquiry.

For much of my career, analytic philosophy, the particular form of philosophy I embraced early in my philosophical education, was a tool to prove that I was correct about something and that someone else was mistaken in a view that contradicted my own.  This activity masqueraded in the guise of wanting to know the truth “for its own sake,” but this was simply a clever form of self-deception or – more aptly – bullshitting myself.  I now see that I wanted to know the truth because life would be unmanageable if I didn’t know the truth, and a certain disaster if it turned out that I was mistaken.  For me, the affect associated with unanswered questions was the same as answers incorrectly answered.  

The whole force of the compulsive drive for clarity and reasoning was the expression of a deep unacknowledged psychological need to control my world, a need rooted in a childhood destabilized by trauma.  Intelligence gave it form as philosophical inquiry, a particular mode of philosophical inquiry.  This need emerged, not because philosophy was seen to be an intrinsically joyful exploration.  Philosophy may begin in wonder, but it’s often taken up or ends up under the control of fear.  For me, the attraction to philosophical inquiry came under the influence of fear and the need for safety. Safety required finding an identity, specifically one that would allow me to exert a high level of control over my world. Logic and reasoning gave promise to answering this need. While the attachment to logic chopping created something of an identity with resources that helped regulate my life at one level, like many defense mechanisms it’s also caused considerable trouble in other respects, especially in the interpersonal domain.  That which is unconsciously motivated by aversion is likely to characterize our conscious lives as depression, anxiety, and addictive behavior.

This need for identity and security, appearing as the seeker of clarity and agent of reasoning, has taken different forms, from embracing religious traditions that advertise some kind of “certainty” to enlisting philosophy to defend such religious traditions from attack, to “steam rolling” people with logic when I felt attacked. Psychologically this remains one of the greatest challenges for me, but for sometime now it has been made conscious. Having been made conscious, needs and motivations don’t necessarily dissolve, but the prior relationship to them is changed in their coming into realization. It begins the process of dissolving the otherwise neurotic engagement with the world.

Conceptual analysis and logical argument remain an important feature of how I do philosophy, but the interests and motivations have shifted since seeing through what I’ve been doing most of my adult life.  The urge to know because not knowing is scary remains a voice, but it’s now seen to be that and as such it’s only one voice in the choir called “self.”  In this seeing, a new love of the process of inquiry and reflection is born, not as a means by which to control the world but simply as part of the process of inner exploration.  And there can be joy in the process, regardless of the outcome, because it’s seen that ignorance is OK. It’s OK even if we learn nothing from it. It’s OK just as it is, with no interest in doing anything with it.

From this position, I’m a hell of a lot more likely to have an attitude of acceptance towards people who differ in their opinions from my own.  If I’m OK about being mistaken, it’s OK that others are mistaken.  I’m simply not going to feel threatened by opinions that contradict my own. For most of my life I was not OK with others being mistaken because I wasn’t OK about being mistaken myself. The attitude towards others was a direct reflection of myself.

I suppose for some people this attitude might move them completely out of the business of philosophical inquiry, or specifically the business of logic chopping and conceptual analysis. Or for some people maybe they lose all conviction of truth if they have this attitude. That’s not the case for me.  I can have conviction that a certain statement is true or false or that an argument is poorly constructed or nicely constructed.  I can evaluate opinions and arguments, and I certainly haven’t lost the interest in doing so.  Yes, I can even feel strongly that an opinion or argument is bullshit.  The crucial thing is having the disposition to feel no different in this moment if I came to see I was the one who was endorsing bullshit.  There’s a growing part of me that actually welcomes the realization that I’m full of shit or that I’ve made some huge mistake in an argument.  In a sense, I’m a bullshit philosopher, but so are others, as I find it hard to believe that I’m someone special here, an exception to the rule.  But is it OK to be a bullshit philosopher?  This would seem to be the real question.  For me, it is. Bullshit and truth are equally OK. Or, to be more precise, life is no less OK when bullshit is present than when truth is present.  What makes bullshit and truth equally OK is to see that they are each part of life as it is happening, and I’m not something separable from life as it is happening.

Am I not without conviction for all of this though. For me, the problem has never been the strong conviction that I was correct. It was the force behind this conviction.  What about having confident assertion, not because I can’t afford being mistaken, but because – from the perspective of my ultimate intention for living – I don’t give a shit if it turns out that I’m mistaken.  Even in the telling of this, there is just a story being told.  Fundamentally, no one knows most of the shit they claim to know. But we play the “knowing game.”  Now I don’t tell myself “stop playing the game.”  This would just be another form of aversion. No: this is what my mind does, and I understand it has a need to play this game. It wants to treat life as a perpetual drama whose essence can be captured by tidy definitions, numbered propositions, and the rest of the paraphernalia of formal logic.  Maybe some truth enters into this drama, of course.  For me, though, the thing is to see it as a game.  This introduces a certain playfulness that breaks the edge of the neurotic personality that loves to take this business, like everything else, more seriously than it actually is. 

I aim to make rigorous arguments, and I love conceptual analysis and logic chopping. You’re not about to find me soft-pedaling my critical engagement of survival arguments. Why not, if it doesn’t ultimately matter?  Well, it matters and it doesn’t matter.

It matters in the sense that in the doing of it there’s an important part of me that is acknowledged and seen.  There’s a security that I give to a part of myself, and this is important.  The need that is met in this process comes from hitherto unconscious parts of the self being seen in the conscious life of the self.  Others cannot give this, but this is what I was previously seeking. So there’s an interesting transition from philosophical inquiry as a way to be seen and validated by others (because of what it produces) to philosophical inquiry as a way of seeing and validating oneself in the activity itself (regardless of what it produces or where it goes). In the latter, “being seen” dissolves in the joy of seeing. Philosophy has become spiritual and therapeutic, but only because it’s reflecting a transformation already in progress.

In other sense, it doesn’t matter.  What I am, even in my individual person, is much larger than this part that gets security from dropping into logical analysis, and loving engagement with these parts is just as essential. Neurotic behavior is just compensation  arising from psychological one-sidedness. So at some point, the analyzer steps back and just watches the rock guitarist step forward and do his thing. And then there’s the poet writing poetry. There is also the lover connecting with women and the feminine.  There is the child playing mini-golf and pinball machines. There is the comedian cracking jokes, generating laughter in some and irritation in others.  Here is the choir I call “self.” Let them sing, and let them sing together.  Singing and dancing is what really matters, for this has the power to reveal our deeper nature and its connection to the transcendent, which is why Rumi called it a path to God. 

Carl Jung once noted that philosophy taught him that all psychological theories, including his own, were a subjective confession. I suspect that philosophy too, the form it takes and how it’s implemented, is fundamentally a subjective confession. At any rate, it has been for me. Even when I’m dealing with conceptual analysis and formulating precise arguments, I am necessarily encountering and speaking about myself. Perhaps this is the most important truth to be realized, the truth about one’s personal story. To get there requires penetrating everything we have erected to keep us from ourselves.

Michael Sudduth